Theatre Unbound struggles to cover new ground

Courtesy of Theatre Unbound

In Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, playwright Saviana Stanescu points out the brutal detachment of the title phrase. It refers to a class of work visa, granted to immigrants whose special abilities merit permission to work in the United States despite their “alien” status.

Gremlin Theatre

Clowning counts as an extraordinary skill—or at least, that’s what Nadia (Anna Sutheim) thought when she came over from Moldova on a visa that turns out to have been secured under false pretenses by her colleague and fellow immigrant Borat (Adam Gauger). When the authorities catch on, Nadia is left to fend for herself, selling balloon animals on the street and looking for under-the-table clowning gigs.

She rents a room from Lupita (Stephanie Ruas), an exotic dancer who agrees to hang onto her couch so that Nadia can crash on it. That disappoints would-be couch buyer Bob (Matt Wall), who shows up in response to Lupita’s Craigslist ad and ends up becoming a sort of fixture in his own right: bribing the women with beer in exchange for their sympathetic ears turned to his post-divorce malaise.

Theatre Unbound could hardly have chosen a more propitious moment to draw attention to the struggles of immigrants. Even if President Trump hasn’t seen any of the plays on this topic, though, this is well-worn theatrical territory, and the ho-hum Aliens doesn’t break much new ground.

The script is long and tends toward tedium, a flaw that’s exacerbated by director Melissa Simmons’ glacial pacing. Much of the copious dialogue is dedicated to clunky exposition rather than character development, which means that two implausible romances come off feeling utterly false. Bob, for example, is introduced as an obnoxiously horny and wildly inappropriate internet rando; a couple of awkwardly impassioned speeches about Nadia’s virtues can’t mask the scent of unseemliness.

Sutheim has the play’s most believable character, and she makes Nadia human and appealing. Wall, on the other hand, seems lost with Bob, and delivering many of his lines at a near-shout doesn’t help him win our hearts. Lupita and Borat are big characters—confident and street-hardened—but Ruas and Gauger play small, and neither really makes an impression. While we empathize with Nadia’s plight, the plot is alternately predictable and confounding.

Poor production design adds to this show’s struggles. Projected images, intended to supply setting cues, feel distracting and redundant. Set/prop designer Ursula K. Bowden puts Borat behind the wheel of a miniature taxicab that seems to have rolled straight out of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, while Lupita gets a mirror frame that looks to be made of swimming-pool flotation noodles.

Despite its timeliness, Aliens with Extraordinary Skills does not find Theatre Unbound’s team making the most of their own considerable skills.

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
612-721-1186; through September 24